Little boys tend to fall into one of two categories. They are dinosaur kids, or truck kids. I’m not saying that the same kid can’t enjoy dinosaurs and trucks at the same time, and I’m not saying that overzealous parents, desperate to get their kid into ‘Tots to Da Vincis’ preschool couldn’t manage to teach their two year old to identify both an excavator and an ankylosaurus from flash cards. I’m just saying that, usually, the kid is deep into either one or the other.
It’s a bandwidth issue.
You just can’t become an expert on all things while you’re still mystified by the fact that you’re supposed to aim your pee into the potty and not at your sister.
My son Sam was a dinosaur kid. He had a collection of “rahs” and carried around two – a blue brontosaurus and a red triceratops – everywhere, for two years. Sam’s ‘rahs’ – named for the noises he made them make – were of critical importance to him. And my nearly perfect husband was a trooper with the dinosaur phase. He built sand piles for the rahs, he created cool vocals for them, and he gamely played the role of victim when they viciously attacked (they were both herbivores, but all rahs have the ability to viciously attack at a moment’s notice). And I know my nearly perfect husband played along with Sam and his rahs because he was biding his time. He knew the rahs were just a phase. A step on the evolutionary father-son relationship ladder. And the next step, one which he never vocalized but I knew he was anticipating was…yep.
My nearly perfect husband is not unlike a lot of classic American dads with sons. They have dreams of coaching baseball and football teams. Of their son making the all-star squad or a coach’s scouting report. Hoisting that championship trophy. Taking his team to State (sounds like a Carrie Underwood song) Anyway, I am fairly certain John had dreams of Sam taking over Tedy Bruschi’s spot on the New England Patriots one day. Or maybe being the next Celtics star forward.
This did not happen.
Oh sure, Sam did t-ball, and his Dad coached the team. John was so proud. Once, Sam’s little teammate saw John in the local convenience store, ran up to him shouting “Coach!” and threw his arm around John’s legs. My nearly perfect husband was beaming. He was in his element.
Sam, on the other hand, looked at t-ball as an opportunity to use a light saber to knock a ball off a stick. And run around. Whether in the direction of the appropriate base or not. Once he got a home run by accident. It’s true. He got a base hit but just kept running until he got to the home plate. He jumped around a little and, luckily, in t-ball no one cared and everyone celebrated. There aren’t supposed to be home runs in t-ball, but there were that day. John had a blast.
Then Sam graduated to coach-pitch baseball. There were too many coaches so John, being the new guy, didn’t get a team. So Sam was on a different team and we went to all the games. Sam had an outfield spot. Which was good. It gave him a lot of time to pretend he was fighting Darth Maul with his invisible outfield light saber. Complete with sound effects.
And a jedi-issued baseball glove.
It was an ongoing rather painful battle to try to convince Sam that he should pay attention to a ball that would, lets face it, probably never come. And really, if it did, there would probably be like five kids converging on it – including the catcher. Probably the other team too. They were six years old, for Christ’s sake. Sam could take his eye – literally – off the ball and all would be fine. No sweat kid, bring on the light saber.
In his very last baseball game, his dad bribed six year old Sam to pay attention during the game by offering up what Sam wanted most in the whole wide world. To watch The Matrix. Even with the prize of watching Neo battle hundreds of Mr. Andersons within reach, Sam was still having trouble paying attention to the game from right field. John was at the fence, trying desperately to get Sam to look over at him. Sam was beginning to swing his invisible light saber (with his glove on) when he caught his Dad’s eye. He understood without a word being spoken. He stood up, he put his hands on his knees, and looked to his Dad. John gave him two thumbs up. Sam nodded.
And then did the absolute best recreation of Keanu Reeves’ Neo slow motion lean back, complete with arms slowly flailing over his head, as invisible bullets rocketed over his torso.
Best end of a baseball career ever.
John and Sam bonded over action films and music. All was good with the world.
My self-proclaimed-perfect-child-Gabe showed up late and unexpectedly to the Dingle family during Sam’s fledgling t-ball/coach pitch career. Gabe knows that he was an unexpected surprise, and has suffered the slings and arrows of his older siblings who regularly refer to him as ‘Fed Ex’. He’s a good kid though and, now at 15, is nearly 6’5 and wears a size 15 soccer cleat. Even if Mac and Sam didn’t want to keep him, they’d have a rough time wrestling him out the door. So I think maybe he’s staying.
Gabe was a truck kid. Bobcats, backhoes, grapplers. We made up songs about them, read about them, and went on car rides specifically to find them. And Gabe liked sports. John was elated. Gabe offered new hope of coaching and football and basketball.
Gabe decided he was a soccer kid. And John knew nothing about soccer. However, our friend Tom – dad of Gabe’s best friend Mitchell Wheeler (said, back then, as one word -as in ‘mitchellwheeler’) – knew lots about the game. So John played assistant coach to Mr. Tom’s coaching during Gabe’s and Mitchell’s formative soccer years. When he was four years old, Gabe was big enough to join the Kids Kick league. And at the end of the season, they got their photos taken and got little trading cards of themselves and everything. Gabe was hooked.
He has played soccer ever since. Never even looked at another sport, no matter how many times we tried (c’mon the kid is now over 6’4, we had to mention basketball once or twice – or a bazillion – times). Nope. He just loves soccer. And he’s pretty good.
But if you are on your way from elementary school to 6’4 over a few, very quick years, it can be a painful. Not just physically either, but mentally. Muscles and bones do not necessarily grow in perfect synchronicity or harmony, so a young athlete has to watch for injury, but also – in the case of high speed, excessive growth – he has to endure a cyclical situation where he is in control of his body one day, and then not so much for a few months. Then back in control for a few months, then not so much. So if you play soccer, you might be fast – then slow. You might be super accurate in shooting – then kick the ball about 25 feet to the left of the net that you could hit blind-folded whilst juggling dairy cows the day before.
It can be painful.
So last year was Gabe’s first year of high school, and Freshman Gabe tried out for the State Champion high school team (they’d won the title the year before). There were a few things working for him and a few against. He was tall, and he was big. He can also play. However, he was also just coming out of a major growth phase and was slower than he had been, and his heart and lungs were still catching up.
So there were three teams he could make. Freshman (a given as no one gets cut), Junior Varsity (cuts for sure), or Varsity (cuts for sure plus a few more for good measure). And the Varsity coach was famous for allowing only one freshman player on the Varsity team each year. That’s it. Only one. Sure, if you were that kid, you’d mostly ride the bench, but you got great respect while you did it. Plus you got to dye your hair blonde (a team tradition) once the team made it to the district level of the play-offs. Huge deal.
So not fifteen minutes into the first day of three days of tryouts, four freshmen were called out to go scrimmage with the Varsity players from the year before. And Gabe wasn’t one of them. He was great about it, said nothing about the abilities of any the other kids or complained about anything being unfair. All he said was that he was disappointed that the Varsity coach hadn’t had a chance to see what he could do. We told him to play his game. We reminded him to be the turtle.
That’s a big thing in our family. Slow and steady. It’s a Tortoise and Hare reference. Run your race, stay true to yourself and your values. It will all pay off.
He worked his butt off.
And then the single freshman was chosen for Varsity. And Gabe wasn’t even looked at for JV. He was on the freshman team. He was confused and determined. And he still didn’t compare himself to the others, or complain about life being unfair. We were so proud of him. This kid had made the top team of every soccer team he’d ever tried out for. He had made those teams over the very kids who had made the Junior Varsity team. But he kept working.
On the first day of official practice, Gabe was in phys-ed class and asked the JV coach (who was also the gym teacher) where the freshman practice was that day. The JV coach asked Gabe if he had a problem working out with the JV team instead. Nope. And he told us as a casual aside that night. No celebratory text or anything.
All freshmen were required to play the freshman games no matter what, and those who had made JV played those games in addition. Gabe played a lot of soccer. The freshman and JV teams would also go to support the varsity team during the season as well. It was a long, busy season. And the Varsity team was doing very well.
And then, one night, the Varsity team won the game that put them in the play-off rounds for the State Championship. Gabe was elated. He was so excited to go to the games and cheer on his high school Varsity team in their quest for back-to-back State Titles.
And he came home from school the next day and said, quietly, “So. Um. I think I need to dye my hair.”
The Varsity coach had called over four members of the JV team at practice that day. He said he couldn’t shirt them, but wanted a deep pool to chose from for the playoffs. He wanted these kids to practice with the Varsity, go to all the games, and be ready to play if necessary.
So four kids dyed their hair in my kitchen that night, to match the blonde heads of the Varsity players who were their heroes.
They practiced with them every day. They rode with them on the bus to games, and warmed up with them on lighted fields across the state on cold nights into November with stands full of blanket wrapped fans screaming for their teams. The four kids formed the “tunnel” through which the other Varsity players ran onto the field. Their names weren’t called out at the beginning of the games, and they didn’t play a single minute of any of the games, but they were a part of it all.
And then the team made it to the State Championship game. This was it. The one for all the marbles.
When John and I showed up to the college campus where the match was being held, we had to park quite a ways away. There were cars everywhere. You could see where the field was, in the distance, by the huge stadium lights shining down on it. You could hear the fist pumping music from a half mile away. The noise of the crowd was already loud, before either team was announced. And then, over the loud speaker, the announcer declared that this was the MIAA Soccer State Championship and he announced the names of the teams. And the crowd went wild.
And as we got up to the front of the ticket line, we could hear our Varsity players’ names called out. We knew Gabe and his fellow called-up JV teammates were lined up, ready to high five the Varsity players as they ran onto the field, one by one. They were always announced in alphabetical order. And all of a sudden, we heard “Gaaaaabe DINGLE”
As a reward for their hard work in practice, and for tirelessly cheering on the starters, and for all the bus rides and all the excitement, the coach chose this last game to include the called-up kids in the announced players’ names. A little later that night, when we bought Gabe a match t-shirt, we realized the coach had rostered them for those too. His name was right there on the t-shirt, along with the other Varsity players.
And at the end of that hard fought battle, when the last whistle blew three times and our crowd erupted, and our boys were officially back-to-back State Champions, Gabe was the first one (as he was for every game in the playoffs) to erupt from the sidelines and make it to the keeper, and knock him to the ground. And the pile that followed was awesome.
He’d played his own game. He worked hard. He was the turtle, slow and steady. And he did it with class, and positivity, and his eye on the prize. Even though he didn’t play an official second in that road to the State Championship, he had earned the right to be a part of it. He will treasure that medal forever.
It. was. awesome.
He rode the team bus home, and texted us a photo. It was shot out the front window of the bus. When they’d got off the highway in our town, two police cars were waiting. One got in front of the team bus, and one slid in behind the fan bus. And they switched their lights on and blared the sirens and the boys and the fans hung out their respective windows and banged on the side of the bus and hooted all the way through town to the high school. Police escort and all.
Thanks for readin’